by Spencer Shannon
On February 18th, I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Jeff Mangum in concert at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence. He was opened for (and briefly accompanied by) fellow Elephant 6 collective member Julian Koster’s band, The Music Tapes, and NYC-based electric folk duo Tall Firs. Tall Firs were a bit boring, like Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd meets Bob Dylan. Their set was short and sleepy, and much too slow for an opening act. Thankfully, they were quickly overtaken and forgotten once The Music Tapes arrived onstage as the second opener – their wild passion and addictive energy got the crowd buzzed and roaring. Julian Koster, a self-proclaimed “storyteller,” captured the audience with his words, making the whole music experience into a playful, fully-formed act on stage, complete with trinkets he built, like the “Amazing 7-foot Tall Metronome” and the “Singing Television.” Somewhere in Koster lives a wide-eyed six-year-old boy – the magic of the world has never really left him, and he was right at home up there surrounded by his massive toys and collection of instruments, including a saw that he played with an increasingly fraying violin bow.
Finally Jeff came out, walking onstage slowly and silently to wild screams and stomping befit of a prodigal son returning home. To put this all into perspective for those of you who don’t follow the indie rock scene, Jeff had been in hiding for over a decade, suddenly breaking his silence a few months ago by announcing that this would be his last acoustic tour for “all the silver citizens dwelling in citys [sic] that he has yet to sing in” (source: Pitchfork.com). This final acoustic tour was the last time for listeners to hear the songs that cemented Neutral Milk Hotel and Mangum himself as indie rock staples. For many, it was also the first time – for the true power of Jeff’s music is that he’s somehow figured out the lyrical key to the hearts of every lost 20-something, regardless of generation, and his songs continue to capture the attention of new fans decades after his masterpiece In the Aeroplane Over the Sea was released and he stopped making music altogether, dropping into obscurity for years.
Mangum himself was looking a little worse for wear in an old ill-fitting sweater and a long, graying beard. But in his sincere smiles, his quiet request to “please sing along with me, my friends,” and his clear, haunting voice he was still every bit the young man that defined indie rock sound for a generation and still to this day attracts new listeners in kids who weren’t even born yet when Neutral Milk Hotel was in its prime. Alone on the stage with only his collection of acoustic guitars, he warmly engaged with his fans, responding likewise to screams of “I love you, Jeff!”, and making the entire night intimate and memorable. It was amazing to be five feet away (we got in line two hours early in order to be in the first row) from a man I’d up until that point thought I’d never see live.
The next time he tours, you owe it to yourself to go see him. True talents (and true sweethearts!) like him are really few and far between. He was every bit as incredible live as I imagined, and it’s easy to see why he still to this day is so revered. In the meantime, I highly suggest checking out NMH’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea if you haven’t already (any self-respecting music buff you know probably owns it on CD and vinyl and they’d be happy to lend it to you), On Avery Island, and Julian Koster’s band The Music Tapes.
This is the set-list as I remember it:
- Holland, 1945
- Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2
- Song Against Sex
- A Baby for Pree
- The King of Carrot Flowers, Pts. 1, 2, & 3
- Oh Comely
- Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone
- Two-Headed Boy Pt. 1
- Ferris Wheel on Fire
- In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (w/ former NMH member Julian Koster)